Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott feels as though it takes a “special type of player with a special mindset” to play the nickel cornerback position.
Though he’s only four games into his professional career, Taron Johnson has already proven that he fits the bill.
Johnson has shined in the slot when healthy this season, standing out as a young defensive cornerstone that the Bills can look to build around.
Johnson’s road to becoming Buffalo’s primary nickel wasn’t without its bumps in the road. In training camp, safety Micah Hyde was concerned with the rookie’s readiness.
“Dating back to training camp, this dude looked like he was a deer in the headlights,” Hyde said. “We called a play and he was looking around not really knowing what to do.”
An adjustment period was to be expected out of Johnson. The 22-year-old played college football at Weber State, a school that’s not necessarily renowned for its football prowess. In fact, before the Bills selected Johnson in the fourth round of the 2018 draft, a Weber State Wildcat had not been selected in a draft since 2010, when the Detroit Lions took Tim Toone with the 255th, or final, pick.
As Johnson gained more experience in Buffalo’s defense, his comfort level grew, eventually earning more first-team reps. By the time Week 1 came around, Johnson had beat out Phillip Gaines for the team’s nickel cornerback role, a job that he has secured a stranglehold on in recent weeks.
Johnson perhaps first stood out in the Bills’ Week 3 win over the Vikings. The rookie played well after missing a game with a shoulder injury, recording seven tackles in the 27-6 win. He also deflected a pass in the contest, the first pass defense of his professional career.
The Sacramento, CA native tallied a few more career firsts in Buffalo’s Week 4 matchup with the Packers. In addition to totaling five tackles, Johnson recorded a strip sack on Aaron Rodgers, notching his first professional sack and forced fumble on one play.
Johnson rode this momentum into the Bills’ Week 5 contest against Tennessee, recording his first career interception. Not even five games into his professional career, Johnson had recorded a sack, forced fumble, and interception, a stat line that many rookies fail to produce throughout the entirety of their debut seasons.
Through the first five weeks of the 2018 season, Johnson has quietly been one of the best cornerbacks in the entire NFL. He’s allowed just 12 receptions for 74 yards. Quarterbacks have a completion percentage of just 54.5 percent and a quarterback rating of 57.8 when targeting Johnson. Only 14 starting cornerbacks have allowed less than 12 completions this season.
Johnson feels as though his strong play stems from his ever-growing level of confidence and comfort in the defense.
“[My comfort level] has grown a lot, tremendously,” Johnson said. “I feel like I know a lot more. I’m out there, really kind of with a little more freedom on how I line up, just based off of me being on the defense since the OTAs until now. I just want to continue to make plays and get better with my knowledge of the defense and making sure I’m doing everything correctly.”
Johnson has caught the attention of his teammates with his improving play. Safety Jordan Poyer has seen Johnson grow more comfortable in the defense.
“He’s confident, and he should be,” Poyer said. “He’s a dog. He’s playing well. I tell him that all the time, ‘You’re a dog, keep playing well and things are going to fall in your favor.’ He made a hell of a play last week, and he’s been playing with a hurt shoulder. You can’t say enough about that guy.”
With the growing popularity of nickel packages in the NFL, effective nickel cornerbacks are becoming incredibly important to have. Micah Hyde thinks that Buffalo has found a solid long-term option at the position in Johnson.
“As a nickel in this league, I’ve played nickel for three, four years dating back to Green Bay, you’ve got to have that knack for the football,” Hyde said. “You’ve got to be able to blitz, you’ve got to be able to cover, you’ve got to be able to hit. That’s him, man. He has that little bulldog in him. That’s Taron.”